Roger Schank: Only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach

DONALD CLARK first saw Roger Schank talk in Denver, Colorado, over 25 years ago and have barely disagreed with a word he’s said since.

Schank is a critic of the current educational system, pointing to 19th century curriculum, teaching by telling, lectures, memorization and standardized tests, as structures and techniques that distort learning. I’ve seen him ask audiences of academics to tell him the quadratic equation, taught to most children – they can’t. I’ve seen him ask audiences about the safety briefing on a 737, something they’ve seen dozens of times – they can’t.

With characteristic boldness, Schank often starts with the statement, “There are only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach it.” So let’s look at his work through these two lenses.

1. What we teach

Schank’s research took him back to the 1892 curriculum in the US, where he found that the current subjects were fossilized into a curriculum designed for testing and to filter students for university. The very idea of a fixed curriculum seems odd to Schank, as it fixes knowledge and we mostly forget the stuff we’re asked to remember.

His bête noire is ‘maths’. Our obsession with maths and standardized tests impoverishes education. In fact the two are linked. Maths is popular because it is easy to test. Driven by PISA tests, which he debunks by showing that their supposed relevance is bogus, the world has become addicted to tests not performance. Algebra, in particular, he sees as a hangover from a fossilized curriculum.

Similarly with the sciences; physics, chemistry and biology, STEM subjects, he thinks, are overrated. Sure we need to learn how to write well in English but that comes through regular practice, not occasional essays. As for languages, Roger has lived abroad and as he speaks French, he finds the French taught in school laughable, as it rarely results in any real success and is not the language spoken in France. The classroom, he claims is not the place to learn a language, especially in a country where there’s no real opportunity for immersion or practice.

In short, school he thinks, has turned into a funnelling process for Universities. This is a big mistake. His solution is to have lots of curricula and allow people to follow their curiosity and interests, as this is what drives real, meaningful and useful learning, as opposed to memorisation and hoop jumping. Organise school, not around subjects, but cognitive processes that match what we do in the real world.

Higher education?

The idea that everyone should go to college he thinks absurd. It’s fine for some but not all. With impeccable, academic credentials, and a background in cognitive science, computer science and education, he explodes the view that Higher Education has of itself, as the pinnacle of teaching competence and achievement. Professors like research and mostly see teaching and undergraduates as something to be avoided. In any case, he thinks, they’re often very poor teachers, relying on stale lecture series that teach what they research.

To cut to the quick, Schank things Higher Education is a con. You pay through the nose for not very much more than a three or four year vacation and a good social life. The courses are poor and the system designed to select researchers.

2. How we teach it

Schank has a strongly libertarian view in that he wants to abandon lectures, memorisation and tests. Start to learn by doing and practice, not theory. Stop lecturing and delivering dollops of theory. Stop building and sitting in classrooms. We need to teach cognitive processes and acquire skills through the application of these processes, not fearing failure.

What most people fail to realise about Schank is that his recommendations are based on a lifetime academic interest and contributions to cognitive science and a deep understanding of these processes.

Script theory

Based on an examination of language and memory, Schank explored the idea of personalised scripts in learning. This personalised, episodic model of memory led to a theory of instruction that exposed learners to model scripts by allowing them to experience the process of building their own scripts. We need scripts for handling meetings, dealing with customers, selling to others and so on. Knowledge is not a set of facts, it’s a set of experiences. This is not taught by telling, it is taught by doing, ‘there really is no learning without doing’. Interestingly, recent memory research confirms this view.

Learning by doing

He rejects the idea that we have to fill people up with knowledge they’ll never use. Too much education and training tries, and fails, to do this. We need to identify why someone wants to learn then teach it. In this sense he puts motivation and skills before factual knowledge. One can pull in knowledge when required.

Meaningful stories (scripts) lie at the heart of his instructional method. These contextualise learning and link to previous schema. A fierce critic of lectures and classroom education and training, he has developed simulation methods for exposing learners to script building environments, where they can learn by repeated exposure to failure and ultimately success. Expectation failure is when things turn out to be different from what you expected. This is when you learn. Breaking with traditional linguists and theorists of learning, he sees learning as a difficult and messy process, where failure is the primary driver. We match incoming problems to past experiences. Case-based reasoning is therefore instructive, where we learn by doing what we want to do. We also learn by making mistakes and reflecting on what those mistakes were and what we can do about them. Learning by doing, works. Learning by telling, doesn’t.

In e-learning this means using case-based instruction, emotional impact, video, role-playing, storytelling. Learners are put into situations that seem realistic to them, to solve problems, and possibly fail, and have someone help them out. Design is hard, reworking the thing into a case-based scenario; something that seems like a goal someone has, then to helping them accomplish it – that’s learning.

Story-Centred Curricula

He prefers to deliver learning from mentored experience, not from direct instruction presented out of context. Fictional situations are set up in which students must play a role. They need to produce documents, software, plans, presentations and such within a story describing the situation. Deliverables produced by the student are evaluated by team members and by mentors. The virtual experiential curricula are story centred. Story-Centred Curricula are carefully designed apprenticeship-style learning experiences in which the student encounters a planned sequence of real-world situations constructed to motivate the development and application of knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion.

Cognitive processes

In his latest book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools he focuses on cognitive processes as the basis for learning interventions.

Conscious Processes

1. Prediction: determining what will happen next 

2. Modeling: figuring out how things work

3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out

4. Values: deciding between things you care about 

Analytic Processes

1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence

2. Planning: determining a course of action

3. Causation: understanding why something happened

4. Judgment: deciding between choices

Social Processes

1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do 

2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal 

3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals

4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others 

These are the skills one needs to master. By allowing users to fail in controlled environments, he saw that instruction is not about telling, it’s about real or fictionally constructed experience, involvement and practice, including the experience of failure.

Online education

In fact most current online education he sees as just a change in venue, not a change in method. He argues for much more problem solving, simulation and learning by doing. He is also critical of MOOCs largely “just lectures on line interrupted by quizzes and discussion groups” and he has little time for Coursera and Udacity, which he sees as replicating poor college courses.


Schank has turned most instructional methods on their head by rejecting the subject-led, academic approach for a more meaningful, experiential, learn by doing method. Using sound principles in cognitive science, he uses case-based scenarios and stories are used to create contexts in which learners succeed, and just as importantly fail. As time passes, Schank seems to become more and more relevant. He’s seen as a heretic but most of the actors in education know in themselves that he’s exposing some deep truths.


Schank, R.C. (1975). Conceptual Information Processing. New York: Elsevier.

Schank, R.C. (1982a). Dynamic Memory: A Theory of Reminding and Learning in Computers and People. Cambridge University Press.

Schank, R.C. (1982b). Reading and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schank, R.C. (1986). Explanation Patterns: Understanding Mechanically and Creatively. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schank, R.C. (1991). Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schank, R.C. & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum Assoc.

Schank, R.C. & Cleary. C. (1995). Engines for education. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.

Schank, R.C (2005). Lessons in e-Learning. Pfeiffer.

Schank, R.C (2011). 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Roger Schank:Only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach

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